It could have been a family meal at any number of summer beach houses. Mom and Dad and two daughters (their son was off at camp) sitting down for a lunch of ham and cottage cheese.

Only this time it was a meal with a message. Albert Francke held his daughters' hands and told them he was moving out: "I'll still be your father and I'll see you every weekend. The only difference in your lives is that sometimes you'll live with me, and sometimes you'll live with your mother."

Linda Bird Francke, 44, her husband and their three children had just joined millions of other victims in America's divorce epidemic. Francke, then a writer for Newsweek magazine, wrote a 1980 cover story, "The Children of Divorce," just as "Kramer vs. Kramer" was becoming a box-office blockbuster.

"The timing," says Francke, "was perfect: 1979 was the year the divorce rate hit its all-time high of 1.18 million." Francke continued research after her own divorce, interviewing sociologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, teachers, parents and, by the hundreds, children.

The result is Growing Up Divorced (Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 303 pp., $15.95), "sort of a Dr. Spock of divorce."

Francke's bottom line: "No child is unaffected by divorce." It ranks No. 2 on the scale of childhood trauma, "second only to parental death."

A major difference, however, is that neighbors, friends and relatives rally around after a death. "The widow becomes a bereaved heroine in a way. The children are supported. Everyone excuses their behavior for a while."

With divorce, "It's exactly the opposite. Even though divorce is so commonplace these days, there's still a stigma attached to the single woman." No one is sure what caused the marriage to break up and, consequently, "people withdraw from that family rather than go toward them."

Instead of that withdrawl, Francke would like to see the community "bring the same casseroles for a divorce as they would for a death."

The situation is somewhat different, she acknowledges, when a father gains custody of the children because he is more apt to be helped out by neighborhood women, sisters, his mother. "There aren't as many available men flocking around a single woman as there are women around a single man."

Francke says while it has been "very slow" in coming, there is more concern and interest today in the children of divorce. "We've had the single mother and all her travails, the single father and his problems, and now the emphasis is more on the children."

Teachers, particularly, have to deal on a day-to-day basis with children whose families are in disruption. "There's great acrimony at home," says Francke, "and the child acts it out in school. The teachers are not trained to recognize it or what to do. They're flying by the seat of their pants."

While many teachers are "wonderfully intuitive" in handling such situations, many are not. On the day his parents' divorce decree became official, "This one boy was sitting in school with his head in his hands, and the teacher said, 'Oh, come on. Cheer up. This isn't the end of the world.' For that particular kid, it was the end of his family structure."

Children can go either of two ways in school during the divorce process. Some show a drastic decrease in work quality while others excel, burying themselves in their work "to shut out all the distress and confusion."

So far as the courts are concerned, Francke prefers conciliation over the adversary situation. "My husband and I worked it out. After a year of rather intense acrimony, we both realized this was ridiculous. We were paying these lawyers thousands of dollars and we just didn't deal with it. There was a cooling-off period and then we dealt as human beings and everything was fine."

Conciliation--or mediation--courts are, Francke says, "extremely useful in terms of the legal process and custody and visitation. What the process does is force the parents to work it out between themselves, rather than having a judgment come down from a bench that says, 'You shall do this,' which they react to adversely."

Francke says a mandatory counseling session for parents would be useful, to point out how their children probably will react to various circumstances in the divorce process and to stress the importance of children seeing both parents.

"You just have to work harder at a divorce," she asserts, "than you do a marriage. It's so much more fragile. The time spent with the noncustodial parent could always vanish. The children really can't count on it."

While Francke says she considers the spate of books about "painless" and "victimless" divorce so much "nonsense," she adds, "We shouldn't make this anything sensational.

"These children are getting up every morning, going to school. They're not out mugging or committing suicide, but there are definite feelings they have, which can interfere with their normal development. Some of them don't progress as fast as others. Others progress too fast."

Even though Francke admits that the chances of children being unharmed are "doubtful" and at least one expert predicts that 75 percent of the marriages of children of divorce also will end in divorce, Francke has one bright note. If both parents can avoid hostility and maintain a healthy relationship with their children, "They'll come out the other end whole," she says, "and perhaps enhanced, because those children have to be more independent and take on more responsibility.

"When you have a one-on-one relationship, you talk and you get to be real pals with your children."